OPINION: What my grandson taught me about remembering the Holocaust

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OPINION: What my grandson taught me about remembering the Holocaust

Alex Brummer writes that remembrance, no matter how difficult, can be an inspiration to a younger generation keen to learn more about the Shoah

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

Terezin memorial
Terezin memorial

When my daughter Jessica called earlier this month to tell me she was proposing to take my grandson Rafi to Auschwitz to help prepare him for his GCSE art project, I knew there was no choice but to be part of the expedition.

It would be my third visit to that dreadful place. The sheer horror of the previous two, in different circumstances, one with a friend and as part of an official UK government delegation, had been emotionally draining.

Rafi’s interest in going to the heart of evil where my paternal grandparents had died and several members of my family miraculously survived, touched me deeply. He has not attended Jewish schools but is keenly involved in the community through youth movements.

Alex Brummer

Somehow over the years I, among my globally distributed network of cousins, had become the repository for a sketchy family history (some of it recorded in newspaper articles). So, as Rafi explored his subject, I could be a useful source.

The timing was not ideal. My mind was still in turmoil after a visit to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Ghetto in  January organised by the European Jewish Association. The theme had been the ‘false narratives’ of the Nazis, exemplified by the showpiece camp filled with children and talented Jews from the arts. Tens of thousands died on site and were incinerated.

An incentive to go to Terezin was the belief one of my father’s brothers, who survived the Shoah, may have spent time there. His journey was a frightening odyssey which took him to four camps before making a life in Israel.

Terezin is an enigma, partly because of the permanence of the structures, some dating from the 19th century when it was an Austrian-Hungarian garrison and prison. Buildings which once housed Jewish victims in desperate overcrowded conditions, have been partly converted into municipal offices.

The most striking aspect was the art gallery. Jewish Czech artists and those from neighbouring areas had been put to work for the sophisticated Nazi propaganda machine.

Cover of the 1932 second edition of Jüdische Kindermärchen (Jewish Tales for Children) by Ilse Herlinger, designed by Gre (Grete) Edelstein (1883–1954); Jewish Museum Berlin, Inv-Nr. BIB/155224/0

Yet using fragments of waste and pilfered paper, they managed to produce art of the highest quality showing the privation of the camps, the brutalist treatment and work conditions of inmates. Artists such as Viktor Ullman and Ilse Weber, whose works illuminated the galleries, having served their purpose were ruthlessly shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944.

As Hitler’s war faltered, the manic determination to exterminate all Jews became ever more pronounced. Under the efficient direction of Adolf Eichmann, there was a hurried effort to rid Hungary of its Jews. My grandparents Sandor and Fanya, aunts, cousins and members of the wider family were loaded on to cattle trucks to Auschwitz for selection.

When you can put names, faces, characters and fragments of family history to the industrial scale of extermination it becomes more digestible. There is a strong history of art, painting and creativity in our family, and Rafi’s desire to translate the horror into pictures, I found profoundly moving. It chimed also with the terrible fate of those Terezin artists.

Terezin is an enigma, partly because of the permanence of the structures, some dating from the 19th century when it was an Austrian-Hungarian garrison and prison

Auschwitz is very different from the camp I visited before. Post-Covid, the visits and exhibits have been streamlined but not sanitised. The children’s shoes, the eyeglasses and cases with family names are no less effective.

Behind us, as we remembered our lost ones, was a large group of Orthodox young women from Israel in dark long skirts, some draped in the Israeli flag. As they entered the gates of Birkenau their voices rang out with the sacred words of the psalmist.

For Rafi, and us all, it was a moment which showed how relevant remembrance remains. Not everyone is able to bear witness first hand at the camps. The disputed Holocaust memorial at Victoria Palace Gardens will provide an accessible and permanent reminder of the grotesque nature of genocide principally against the Jews. It can be an inspiration to young people like Rafi and those defiant young Israeli women who want to know more.

  • Alex Brummer is a journalist, editor and author. 
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